The Czech tenor Leo Slezak (1873-1946) was one of the giants of the operatic world of the first quarter of the 20th century. His physical stature was as imposing as his voice. It was this combination of physique and voice that brought him to the Metropolitan Opera. He made his New York debut as Verdi’s Otello on November 17, 1909; he received rave reviews. His last appearance at the Met was in the same role a little more than three years later. The reason Slezak sang at the Met for only three seasons can be stated in two words – Enrico Caruso. There wasn’t room or money enough there for two super-star tenors. Otello was a role that Caruso didn’t sing. Of the 112 performances that Slezak sang in New York all but a very few were roles not in Caruso’s repertoire. In addition to 31 Otellos (all but one under the direction of Arturo Toscanini), Slezak predominantly appeared in Mozart and Wagner roles. While he sang at many of the worlds great houses, Slezak’s career was mainly based in Vienna where he sang 936 times. For the details of his life see here and here.
Later in his career, he sang in operettas and made movies. He had a flair for comedy which is evident in his movies even if your German is weak or nonexistent. His son Walter was a successful character actor in the US and his granddaughter Erika Slezak appeared for more than 40 years in the soap opera One Life to Live. Walter even made it to the Met. He appeared in 15 performances of Strauss’ The Gypsy Baron during the 1959-60 season.
Slezak could sing just about anything. In the span of less than a New York week he sang the tenor leads in The Magic Flute, Otello, and Die Meistersinger. His voice has a pure tenor sound that was capable of both power and subtlety. Despite his being able to sing many dramatic roles there are no baritone overtones which likely explains his ability to also sing very lyric parts. Here is Otello’s second act aria Ora per sempre addio. It was recorded in 1912.
It’s hard to believe that he could just as easily sing this: Viens, gentille dame, as Verdi or Wagner. The cavatina is from François-Adrien Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche. It shows Slezak’s extraordinary facility with voix mixte. The recording was made in 1905 and is abridged because of the space limitation of the existent technology. It’s sung in German. Another example of Slezak’s mezza voce singing is Du Pauvre Seul Ami Fidèle from Auber’s La Muette De Portici. This 1907 recording is also in German.
Wagner’s Lohengrin was perfect for Slezak’s clarion middle voice. This 1907 recording of In Fernem Land easily stands comparison with the best interpreters of the role. The aria, of course, is the one that every tenor who otherwise avoids Wagner sings.
In his 1905 recording of Magische Töne from Goldmark’s Die Königin Von Saba, Slezak uses just about every vocal register that exists – a tour de force. Che Gelida Manina is sung with a full smooth voice that rises easily to it’s climactic high C.
Slezak was as fluent in lieder as in opera. Richard Strauss’ well known song Morgen is sung with restraint and sensitivity. Schumann’s ethereal Der Nussbaum gets the dream-like treatment it requires. He sounds like a different tenor from the one that sang Otello.
As I mentioned above, Mozart was a staple of his repertoire. To conclude here are Un’ Aura Amorosa (in German) from Così Fan Tutte and Dies Bildnis Ist Bezaubernd Schön from Die Zauberflöte. Slezak was clearly among the very short list of the 20th century’s greatest tenors. His combination of artistry and versatility is unsurpassed.